There are plenty of reasons to mourn the passing of Gene Wilder, the comedic icon who died yesterday at the age of 83.
Wilder conceived of the idea for “Young Frankenstein” and helped director Mel Brooks write the script, for which Brooks eventually won an Oscar. Wilder also nabbed an Oscar nomination for his fevered portrayal of Leo Bloom in “The Producers.”
He starred in a passel of hugely popular comedies with Brooks and Richard Pryor. He married Gilda Radner and started a support network in her name after she died of ovarian cancer. Later in life, he wrote a memoir and three novels. He was revered by family, fans, and fellow comics.
I would argue, though, that the depth of Wilder’s genius can best be understood by examining a single scene: the grand entrance he stages as Willy Wonka, in the 1971 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
The scene begins with a throng massed at the gates of his chocolate factory, awaiting the appearance of the reclusive confectioner. The door opens and Wonka appears. But the cheering quickly fades as the rubberneckers realize that the great man has a severe limp. All that can be heard amid the funereal silence is the stark tock of his cane.
A few feet short of the gate, Wonka leans on his cane and it gets stuck in the cobblestones. He stands before the crowd with no means of support, and a look of helpless terror overtakes his face. Then he begins to fall slowly forward. Just as it appears his entrance will end in an epic face plant, he rolls into a perfect somersault.
The scene is absolutely shocking, a tour de force of physical comedy worthy of Buster Keaton.
And Wilder dreamed up the whole thing. In fact, he insisted on playing the scene this way before he would consent to take the part. When the director, Mel Stuart, asked why, Wilder reportedly said, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
Wilder, in other words, didn’t just star as Willy Wonka, he conceived of the character, right down to the height of his top hat.
As someone who has read Dahl’s fine novel three times over (once on my own, and twice to my children), I can tell you that Wilder’s Wonka is a far more complex and vivid character than the one in the book.
He is both courtly and strangely menacing, a lunatic prophet who understands that children are both avatars of the imagination and agents of the devil.
The brilliance of his performance is impossible to convey in print because so much of it resides in his body language and inflection, in facial expressions and gestures.
From the moment he appears on screen, he owns the picture.
There is the scene in which Wonka shows the five children invited to tour his factory one of his new inventions—edible wallpaper.
“The snozzberries taste like snozzberries,” he declares.
“Snozzberries?” snorts the stupendously bratty Veruca Salt. “Who ever heard of a snozzberry?”
Wonka grabs her roughly by the chin, leans close and stares at her with his blue eyes wide. “We are the music makers,” he murmurs devoutly, quoting the obscure 19th century English poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy. “And we are the dreamers of dreams.”
At the film’s climax, Wilder delivers a stunning emotional turnabout. It begins with a frothing fit directed at Charlie Bucket, the film’s young hero. Wonka hurls legalistic gibberish at the boy for taking unauthorized sips of his Fizzy Lifting Drink.
Charlie’s grandpa Joe is indignant. He mutters a threat to give Wonka’s chief competitor, Slugworth, the fabled Everlasting Gobstopper that Wonka bestowed on all the children who visited his factory. But Charlie, ever pure of heart, places the Gobstopper back on his desk.
“So shines a good deed in a weary world,” Wonka says softly. Then he jumps up with joy and announces that this act of loyalty was what he had been seeking all along; he can now make Charlie the sole heir to his factory.
It is impossible to view this set piece and not stand in awe of Wilder’s dramatic chops. In the space of a few seconds, he transforms himself from a vicious misanthrope into an ecstatic father figure.
"Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" is often dismissed as kitschy kids stuff, a goofy Seventies musical with a cloying aftertaste.
But I am hard-pressed to think of another performance in the history of American cinema that is as enthralling and tender and unprecedented as Wilder’s Wonka. It is completely sui generis.
I’m sure I’ll catch all kinds of crap from cinema highbrows for suggesting this, but Wilder deserved the Oscar for Best Actor in 1971.
As it is, Gene Hackman won for his portrayal of the narcotics detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in "The French Connection." A gritty performance, no doubt. But I have trouble remembering much of what Hackman did in that film, aside from yelling at people and chasing people and shooting at people. His emotional range extended from pissed off to extremely pissed off.
As for the other Best Actor nominees that year, I defy any self-respecting film buff to rank Walter Matthau’s performance in "Kotch," or George C. Scott’s turn as Dr. Herbert Bock in "The Hospital," as superior to Wilder’s. I doubt anyone even remembers those roles.
And yet, 45 years and one dreadful re-make later, Wilder’s tour de force remains a touchstone in popular culture.
It’s not just old coots like me who are captivated by his magic. All three of my children, and most of their friends, worship the Wonka Wilder created.
In fact, just a few hours before his death was made public, my three-year-old demanded — under threat of tantrum — to watch the scene in which Wilder sings his lovely rendition of “Pure Imagination” while his guests gallivant and gulp through his chocolate room.
To be completely accurate, she insisted on seeing it three times in a row.